BEHIND THE HEADLINES
Watching AIPAC case, Jewish groups
wonder if they also are being checked
By Matthew E. Berger
WASHINGTON, Sept. 7 (JTA) -- New twists and turns in the case of alleged
wrongdoing by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee have left
many in the Jewish community baffled.
A week after allegations first broke suggesting that AIPAC was involved
in the exchange of classified information from the Pentagon to Israeli
officials, new reports suggest FBI investigators have been monitoring
the pro-Israel lobby for more than two years.
The first question many in the Jewish community are asking is, "Why?"
"We're pitching in the dark," said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice
chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish
Organizations. "We haven't seen a shred of evidence."
Much remains unknown about the origins of the investigation, hurting
Jewish groups' ability to respond and defend one of the most prominent
organizations in the community.
While they work to exonerate AIPAC in the public eye, Jewish leaders say
they also must make sure the issue won't affect the way they do
business. Groups worry that they, too, could be targeted for
investigation or left to deal with potentially changed perceptions of
the organized American Jewish community.
Jewish leaders said talks are ongoing as to new ways to defend AIPAC and
the Jewish community in both public and private contexts.
Quietly, there is deep concern in Jewish circles about the effect the
investigation will have, no matter how it plays out, on Jewish groups'
ability to function. With the summer ending and many people in
Washington returning to work, the next few weeks will be an important
test for how the organized Jewish community is perceived in the capital.
"It really has done a considerable amount of harm, no matter what the
outcome is," said Barry Jacobs, director of strategic studies at the
American Jewish Committee. "It's going to circumscribe our ability to do
what any nonprofit does, which is obtain information and exchange views."
Chief among the concerns is whether other Jewish entities might be under
investigation without their knowledge, or are being monitored in
relation to this case.
"If they are watching AIPAC, how many other Jewish organizations are
they watching as well?" asked Tom Neumann, executive director of the
Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs.
Confident they have nothing to hide, Jewish leaders say they won't
change the way they do business. But the case could serve as a guide to
reinforce to Jewish officials the need to play by the rules on security
"Are we too lax in our discussions, leaving the door open for
misunderstandings?" one Jewish leader wondered.
Beyond security concerns, Jewish leaders worry that now they may be seen
differently when they walk into a room with governmental officials or
people unfamiliar with different groups in the community.
"They don't necessarily know the difference between AIPAC and JCPA and
the federations," said Hannah Rosenthal, executive director of the
Jewish Council for Public Affairs.
Congressional officials say they'll take a wait-and-see approach toward
AIPAC, but are skeptical about the investigation. One Democratic
congressional aide said if the issue under scrutiny was a policy
discussion about Iran, as has been reported, the line between legal and
illegal dialogue is pretty thin.
Publicly, Jewish leaders remain solidly behind AIPAC. Several Jewish
organizations have released statements supporting the work AIPAC has
done over the years, and most others have expressed similar thoughts
when asked by reporters.
AIPAC is one of the best-known Jewish organizations in the country,
respected for its strong ties to government officials, especially
members of Congress. While some Jewish groups resent AIPAC's ability to
set the Jewish community's agenda on Middle East matters, or don't
always agree with its tactics, there is strong sentiment that any
negative attention for AIPAC will hurt all Jewish groups' efforts.
Some Jewish leaders say the initial feeling in the community was that it
was better not to speak out -- not because of a lack of support for
AIPAC but in hopes of minimizing media coverage of the story. But now
that more than 300 articles already have been written on the issue in
American newspapers, that thinking has changed.
Jewish leaders now are minimizing the investigation, suggesting it can't
be of real merit because it has been going on for two years without
arrests. They also note that if there were merit to the case it's
unlikely that President Bush and his national security adviser,
Condoleezza Rice, would have addressed the group after the investigation
was launched. Rice reportedly was aware of the investigation.
If the FBI is pursuing an intelligence investigation, as is believed,
and not a criminal investigation, it's hard to know what launched it.
The guidelines for that type of investigation are classified, a former
senior FBI official said.
He said it would be normal for the investigation to go on for a long
time without arrests, though it would have to be reviewed and
adjudicated internally at the FBI or Justice Department.
"AIPAC is not a soft target," the official said. "To launch an
investigation against AIPAC, you are going to have to have some credible
information to go with it."
Once an investigation is launched, its direction can be tailored by
people who may be out to prove -- because of bias or in the interest of
catching a big fish -- that AIPAC acted illegally, Jewish leaders said.
"Overall, it's finding a needle in a haystack," said JINSA's Neumann.
"If you go into enough haystacks, you'll find something that resembles a
needle, but is not a needle."
There also is concern that the saga may not have a succinct end.
It may be difficult to learn when the investigation into AIPAC is
completed, if no charges are filed, and its exact origins -- information
Jewish leaders say would be useful in clearing the name of AIPAC and the
community in general.
"I don't think there is a great deal of trust in an investigation in
this political climate," said Rosenthal of the JCPA. "I hope we find out
the facts and find out why someone would start this story."
For now, theories abound. Some suggest anti-Semitic or anti-Israel
entities within the government are propelling the investigation forward
or leaking it to the media. Others suggest that opponents of the war in
Iraq are trying to tie some of its key architects -- so-called
"neo-conservatives" in the Pentagon -- to Israel and to possible dual
"If that is the pretext, it's a problem," Neumann said. "Someone may be
out to prove that thesis is true, and they can look as long as they want."
AIPAC is hoping to weather the storm by proving its strength as an
organization. In an appeal to contributors Tuesday, AIPAC leaders said
decision makers in Washington will look at AIPAC's financial strength to
gauge its overall viability.
"We cannot abide any suggestion that American citizens should be
perceived as being involved in illegal activities simply for seeking to
participate in the decisions of their elected leaders, or the officials
who work for them," read the letter, signed by AIPAC's president,
Bernice Manocherian, and executive director, Howard Kohr. "That is our
right as citizens of the greatest democracy in the history of mankind.
That is a right we will proudly exercise. That is a right we will